Fasting for religious purposes is not unique to Jainism, but what is unique to the religion is the ritual called sallekhana. It is the practice of fasting until death and it is performed by only the most devout.
For those who bravely engage in this ritual, sallekhana is mostly performed when death is thought to be imminent. There is scriptural justification for sallekhana and there is also the deep conviction that attaining salvation requires one to engage it. Death to Jains is viewed as a gateway to the next life because they believe in reincarnation and karma. To die by starving oneself is also seen as a non-violent way to go and is thus embracing of Jainism’s central tenet of non-violence (ahmisa). Also important is that sallekhana evidences a remarkable asceticism that demonstrates the devotee’s rejection of material comfort in the world, which emulates the founder Mahavira.
Historically we also have cases of sallekhana being performed by ascetics. In the medieval period, for instance, there are six cases during the seventh century CE and nearly sixty in the eighth. Of the latter sixty, forty-eight were men and eleven were women. In many cases, sallekhana would have the devotee lay down in a holy place where he or she ceased to consume food and drink until death.
In Jainism’s scriptural tradition there is the Uttaradhyayana that refers to the Wiseman’s death who willingly embraces sallekhana; by contrast, there is the ignorant person who is not willing and prepared to face death. The Ratnaharanda-Sravakacara refers to sallekhana as abandoning the body in illness and disease, when facing calamities such as famine, and in extreme old age. It is also seen as a way for the devotee to acquire religious merit. The Jain texts provide three methods to perform this ritual. One method is for the devotee to select some place free from other living beings where he is to spread a bed of straw, give up food and drink, and avoid moving his limbs under any circumstances. In the second method, the devotee can lie down on a bare piece of ground where he is allowed to move his limbs but must avoid taking food until his death. According to the third form, the devotee stands motionless like a tree without any food until he meets his death.
Sallekhana has been controversial in the modern period; for example, the Indian Supreme Court has considered banning the ritual because it is tantamount to committing suicide which is illegal under the country’s law. This has caused protests from India’s small Jain community and for some proponents to take issue with imposing Western law inherited from Britain on non-Europeans and members of other faiths.
Bhushan, Ram. 1968. “Sallekhana or Suicide by Fasting in Karnataka (7th-10th Centuries A.D.).” In Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 30:148-151.